Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sambar (Vegetable Stew)

My maternal grandmother Mummi made many vegan dishes when my mom was young, including sambar - a thick, fiber-rich, stew that is best served with a ladle. Upon reaching her mid-30s, she gave up meat all together, but continued to cook mutton cutlets, chicken stew, and other meat dishes that most of Kerala’s Syrian Christians can’t live without to appease the family.

Toor dhal cooked for sambar_edited-2

Mummi’s journal contains many tips on good nutrition (including the importance of avoiding a high protein diet after the age of 40). So I assumed that she changed her eating habits for health reasons. But according to my mom, my grandmother cut out meat with the hopes of securing a prosperous future for her children. That came as no surprise. My mom is constantly negotiating with a higher power. 

Vegetables for sambar_edited-1

Mummi’s love of meat-free dishes was also handed down to my mom. As a child, I loved to watch her cleanse lentils and slice up vegetables for sambar and other vegetarian dishes that Mummi had cooked for her.

Cooking vegetable with lentils for sambar


Serves 4 to 6

Sambar is a versatile vegan dish. I like to include  tomatoes, green beans, and potatoes, but you can swap in other veggies, including those buried in your crisper. It’s traditionally served with idlis (sourdough buns), dosas (sourdough crepes),  urad vada (donut shaped fritters), or, more simply, a plate of piping hot parboiled rice.


1/2 cup toor dhal (pigeon peas)

5 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup roughly chopped onions

1/2 cup roughly chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup roughly chopped potatoes

1/2 cup chopped green beans

1 tablespoon sambar powder

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon tamarind concentrate

1 1/2 teaspoons canola or olive oil

1/8 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

10 curry leaves

1 dried red chili (optional)


Place the dhal in a stockpot. Cover it with water and stir to remove excess starch. Drain and repeat until the water becomes clear. Slowly drain the water. 

Add 3 1/2 cups of water to the rinsed dhal.

Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium low, and cook until the dhal can be easily mashed with the back of a spoon (about an hour and a half). Most of the water will have evaporated. 

Add 2 cups of water, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and beans to the cooked dhal. Stir.

Stir in the sambar powder and salt. Cook until the vegetables  just start to soften, about 15 minutes.

Place the tamarind concentrate in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of liquid from the cooked dhal to the tamarind and stir to dilute it. Pour the diluted tamarind back into the dhal mixture. Cook until the vegetable become knife tender, about 10 minutes.

Place the oil in a small skillet over medium low heat. Add the brown mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the curry leaves and dried red chili. Cook for 1 minute.

Stir the flavored oil into the dhal mixture.